A "killing field" in the Americas:
US policy in Guatemala
The reality of Guatemala
Guatemala, with 10 million people, is
the most populous country in Central America. It is run by an
oligarchy of wealthy landowners and big business interests that
reap the country's agricultural and commercial rewards at the
expense of the rest of the population. The country has been headed
by military dictators and figurehead-presidents. Ultimate control
belongs to the Army.
Guatemala is a country without social or economic justice, especially
for the 6 million indigenous Mayan Indians who make up the majority
of the population. There is a marked disparity in income distribution,
and poverty is pervasive. On coffee plantations, peasants, descendants
of the ancient Maya, live in concentration camp-like conditions,
as de facto slaves. 40% of the indigenous people have no access
to health care, and 60% have no access to safe drinking water.
Education in rural areas is non-existent, with the result that
50% of the people are illiterate. Half of the country's children
suffer from malnutrition. Every day in Guatemala, a country in
which everything grows, people go hungry.
The real power in Guatemala is in the hands of the Army, and that
power has been used to violently control the people, resulting
in the worst human rights record in the hemisphere. During more
than 30 years of civil war, over 150,000 Guatemalans have been
killed or disappeared, tens-of-thousands have been forced to flee
to Mexico, 1 million have been displaced inside the country, and
more than 440 Indian villages have been destroyed. 75,000 widows
and 250,000 orphans have been produced out of the carnage. And,
for more than four decades, the United States government has consistently
supported the Guatemalan Army and the ruling class in their policies
The early history
The harsh realities of present day Guatemala sprouted from the
bitter seeds that were planted in its early history. Spanish conquistador
Pedro de Alvarada (1485-1541) began the conquest and subjugation
of the Mayan city-states in the 1500s. Land ownership, mineral
production, and agriculture were organized to benefit the Spanish.
Although independence came in 1821, foreign control of huge banana
and coffee plantations continued the patterns that developed in
the colonial period, and Indian lands continued to be confiscated.
In the 1920s, after a century of involvement in agriculture in
Guatemala and the export of its food crops, the US established
military missions in all Latin American countries. Guatemala's
military was tied to the US military through training, aid, and
a commitment to protect US economic interests, and the Army became
a major force.
United Fruit Company
Under dictator Jorqe Ubico (1931-1944),
American-owned United Fruit Company (UFC) gained control of forty-two
percent of Guatemala's land, and was exempted from taxes and import
duties. The three main enterprises in Guatemala -- United Fruit
Company, International Railways of Central America, and Empress
Electrica -- were American-owned (and controlled by United Fruit
Company). Seventy-seven percent of all exports went to the US
and sixty-five percent of imports came from the US.
"10 Years of Springtime"
Repressive governments have plagued Guatemala
throughout its history, with alternating waves of dictators being
the rule. But, between 1945 and 1954, there was a period of enlightenment
-- an experiment with democracy called the "10 Years of Springtime"
-- that started with the election of Juan Jose Arevalo to the
While in power from 1945 to 1951, Arevalo established the nation's
social security and health systems and a government bureau to
look after Mayan concerns. Arévalo's liberal regime experienced
many coup attempts by conservative military forces, but the attempts
were not successful.
Arévalo was followed by Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán
who became president in democratic elections in 1951. At the time,
2% of landowners owned 70% of the arable land and farm laborers
were kept in debt slavery by these landowners. Arbenz continued
to implement the liberal policies of Arevalo, and instituted an
agrarian reform law to break up the large estates and foster individually
owned small farms. The land reform program involved redistribution
of 160,000 acres of uncultivated land owned by United Fruit Company.
United Fruit was compensated for its land.
United Fruit, Eisenhower and the end of
United Fruit was a state within the Guatemalan
state. It not only owned all of Guatemala's banana production
and monopolized banana exports, it also owned the country's telephone
and telegraph system, and almost all of the railroad track. In
addition to redistributing United Fruit land, the government also
began competing with United Fruit in the production and export
Important people in the ruling circles of the US, involved with
United Fruit Company, used their influence to convince the US
government to step in. (Secretary of State John Foster Dulles'
law firm had prepared United Fruit's contracts with Guatemala;
his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, belonged to United Fruit's
law firm; John Moors Cabot, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American
Affairs, was the brother of a former United Fruit president; President
Eisenhower's personal secretary was married to the head of United
Fruit's Public Relations Department.)
In 1954, Eisenhower and Dulles decided that Arbenz finally had
to go, and the US State Department labeled Guatemala "communist".
On this pretext, US aid and equipment were provided to the Guatemalan
Army. The US also sent a CIA army and CIA planes. They bombed
a military base and a government radio station, and overthrew
Arbenz Guzmán, who fled to Cuba.
The coup restored the stranglehold on the Guatemalan economy of
both the landed elite and US economic interests. President Eisenhower
was willing to make the poor, illiterate Guatemalan peasants pay
in hunger and torture for supporting land reform, and for trying
to attain a better future for themselves and their families. In
order to ensure ever-increasing profits for an American corporation,
the US State Department, the CIA, and United Fruit Company had
succeeded in taking freedom and land from Guatemala's peasants,
unions from its workers, and hope for a democratic Guatemala from
all of its people.
Aided by the US, Colonel Castillo Armas became the new president.
The US Ambassador furnished Armas with lists of radical opponents
to be eliminated, and the bloodletting promptly began. Under Armas,
thousands were arrested and many were tortured and killed. United
Fruit got all its land back. As an extra present, the Banana Worker's
Union was banned. Armas disenfranchised one-third of the voters
by barring illiterates from voting. He outlawed all political
parties, labor confederations, and peasant organizations. He closed
down opposition newspapers and burned "subversive" books.
The "Springtime" had ended.
Dictators and repression
The coup in Guatemala inaugurated an era
of military rule in Central America. Generals and Colonels acted
with impunity to wipe out dissent and garner wealth for themselves
and their friends.
And, the killing of defenseless people became state policy in
Guatemala. Between 1954 and 1981, more than 60,000 people were
murdered. Guatemala continues to suffer the worst record of human
rights abuses in Latin America.
The Armas regime was followed by a succession of repressive military
dictatorships. As both protest and repression became more violent,
civil war emerged, especially in the highlands. Industrialization
in the 1960s and '70s helped the rich get richer, while the cities
became increasingly squalid as the rural dispossessed fled the
countryside to find urban employment. The military continued its
violent suppression of anti-government elements, especially in
the countryside, among the indigenous Mayan population, resistance
grew, and a guerrilla army began to form.
The Green Berets, the CIA, and death squads
During the 1960s and 70s, American military
aid and training made Guatemala's army the strongest and most
sophisticated in Central America. Between 1966 - 68, during the
Johnson presidency, the Green Berets were sent to Guatemala to
transform its Army into a modern counter-insurgency force and
to conduct a Vietnam -style war there. This is the origin of the
killing machine that operates in Guatemala today.
Death squads, never before seen in Latin America, were started
during this period. Army leaders, government officials, and the
businessmen who supported and often bankrolled the death squads,
had close ties with many US administrations. The squads had lists
of people that were suspected communists, or who opposed the existing
system of elite-corporate-Army control. Those on the lists were
hunted down and killed.
The US mission and its advisors prodded the military to take measures
to establish a US base for counterinsurgency (counter-revolutionary)
actions, in order to maintain cheap labor for the landowners and
US corporations, and to preserve the System. Terror was the weapon,
and the American CIA was the agent. Targeting guerrillas, peasants,
students, labor leaders, and professionals, the Guatemalan military
jailed thousands. And thousands more, struggling to overcome poverty
and injustice, were murdered or disappeared by the police, the
army, and the death squads, all armed and trained by the CIA.
Journalists, lawyers, teachers, members of opposition parties,
and anyone who expressed sympathy for the anti-government cause
were machine-gunned. Anyone attempting to organize a union or
improve the lot of the peasants was subject to torture, mutilation,
and death. Men were found decapitated or castrated. Some had their
eyes gouged-out, their testicles cut off and put in their mouths,
their hands or tongues cut off; women had their breasts cut off.
Electric shock to the genitals was routinely used, with equipment
and instructions supplied by the CIA. American planes and pilots,
flying out of Panama, dropped napalm on suspected targets.
By the end of 1968, the guerrillas had been wiped out. For the
Pentagon it had been a limited war; for the Guatemalans the war
had been total.
The CIA, the Guatemalan G-2, and Israel
But, the war did not end with victory
over the guerrillas. Since the 1960s, the CIA has had links with
a Guatemalan Army unit -- the G-2 -- that maintains a network
of torture centers and body dumps throughout Guatemala and has
killed thousands of Guatemalan civilians. Operating out of the
US Embassy, CIA undercover agents, secretly working with the G-2
-- a group of 2,000 elite Guatemalan Army Intelligence officers
-- have trained, advised, armed, and equipped these officers to
torture, assassinate and disappear thousands of Guatemalan dissidents.
Some G-2 bases have their own crematoriums where the tortured
and murdered are disposed of.
In the 1970s, international publicity revealed the pattern of
torture and killing, and public reports exposed the Guatemalan
Army as the most repressive in Latin America. This series of events
resulted in a change in human rights sentiment in the US. In 1977,
US President Jimmy Carter cut off overt military aid. However,
money and arms still got to there -- through the CIA. When President
Lucas Garcia began his fearsome regime in 1978, and set out to
eliminate all the new popular leaders by either murdering or coopting
them, and when death squads roamed the land and murdered at will,
the CIA was there to help.
In addition to US and CIA support, Argentina, and Chile provided
expertise and aid to Guatemala's military. And, Israel has played
a very important role in Guatemala since 1977, supplying weapons,
building munitions factories, and training soldiers.
Reagan and Rios Montt
The 1980s was marked by barbaric repression
and the massacre of the indigenous population. A succession of
elected dictators, supported by the US, left suffering in their
wake. Because of the notoriety that again developed from reports
of human rights violations by the Guatemalan Army, President Reagan
changed the US policy of overt aid to the Guatemalan Army to a
two- track policy. While government spokespersons made public
pronouncements in support of human rights and the return to civilian
rule, the Reagan Administration signaled to the Guatemalan Army
its approval for winning the war, and it lobbied Congress for
more aid. The CIA continued to work with Guatemala's security
General Efrain Rios Montt, a graduate of the School of the Americas
(SOA), at Fort Benning, Georgia, came to power in a 1982 coup.
Praised as a "born-again" Christian reformer, in truth
he was one of the most savage of Guatemalan dictators. His "Beans
and Rifles" program was designed to keep guerrillas out of
Indian villages -- beans for those who cooperated, rifles for
those who didn't. He declared a "state of siege", and
on television, he stated that he had "declared a state of
siege so that we could kill legally". He banned public meetings,
suspended the constitution, replaced elected officials, and censored
the press. He also instituted Civil Defense Patrols (PACs) to
control the population.
Rios Montt moved the war from urban centers to the countryside
where "the spirit of the lord" guided him against "communist
subversives', mostly indigenous Indians. As Guatemalans suffered
torture, kidnappings, and massacres at the hands of the government,
he presented himself as the savior of the population. Using the
lessons he had learned at the SOA, he implemented a "pacification"
program similar to that used by the US in Vietnam, intended to
give the impression that the government wanted to reestablish
democracy in the country. In reality, as the "pacification"
program moved from village to village, it essentially established
concentration camps populated by those who had been able to survive
the massacres and political genocide which the government itself
During the 17 months of Rios Montt's "Christian" campaign,
400 villages were destroyed, 10 - 20,000 Indians were killed,
and over 100,000 fled to Mexico. Early in 1983, President Reagan
resumed military shipments to Guatemala, claiming that Montt's
program against the guerrilla insurgency was working. He said
that Montt was given a "bum rap" on human rights.
Montt was overthrown in August, 1983. In December, 1985 Vinicio
Cerezo Arevalo, a civilian who campaigned as a populist reformer,
was elected president. But, the Army continued to have the power.
Cerezo disbanded the secret police (DIT), but assassinations of
students, peasants, and human rights activists continued through
the Army's G-2, with CIA assistance.
The Reagan administration and the death
Before his administration took office
in 1980, President Reagan courted the Guatemalan right, whose
views he shared. He promised then-president of Guatemala General
Romeo Lucas Garcia and leaders of the right, a 180 degree turn
in US policy toward their country. The agreement provided for
the restoration of US weapons sales, the curtailment of State
Department criticism of human rights violations, and the promise
that the US would intervene militarily in the event of a popular
uprising. The assurances by Reagan may have led the Guatemalan
government officials who ran the death squads to feel confident
that the US would support their activities. The death squads were
staffed and directed by the Guatemalan Army and Police under the
command of President Lucas. Private businessmen paid the salaries
and often assisted in compiling lists of potential victims --
usually student, labor, professional, and political leaders.
The significant increase in the number of death squad assassinations
-- including the assassination of 34 of the top leadership of
the moderate Christian Democratic Party -- that took place after
Reagan took office, may have been a direct result of his assurances
to the Guatemalan right. In February 1981, Amnesty International,
reporting on massive human rights violations in Guatemala, attributed
nearly 6,000 deaths to the Lucas Gracia government in less than
three years, many of them at the hands of death squads. The attendance
of Mario Sandoval Alarcon, considered to be the high commander
of the Guatemalan death squads, at the Reagan inauguration, reveals
the close relationship that existed between the Guatemalan rulers
and the Reagan administration.
The war on drugs, the US National Guard,
and the indigenous people
Near the end of the Reagan administration,
another technique for repression was used -- the war on drugs.
While the program had no significant impact on drug production
and trafficking, it had serious consequences for indigenous Guatemalans.
The spraying of lethal herbicides by anti-drug helicopters and
planes caused widespread damage, poisoning large numbers of people,
animals, fish, and plants. To escape government violence, some
of the tens-of-thousands of indigenous internal refugees in Guatemala
at that time, banded together in remote areas. In the name of
its anti-drug policy, the government bombed these areas, captured
much of the population, and tortured and killed many of them.
In 1989, the Bush administration, under the guise of humanitarian
aid, sent National Guard units to Guatemala to provide medical
services. They served in areas where the guerrilla movement was
the strongest. According to villagers, a visit from the National
Guard units sometimes bore more of a resemblance to police interrogations
than to medical examinations. As villagers were getting "humanitarian"
help, they were questioned about the type of organizations they
had, who their leaders were, and what type of people visited their
The DeVine case
In 1990, MIchael DeVine, an American businessman
living in Guatemala, apparently stumbled upon the Guatemalan Army's
drug-trafficking activities. He was kidnapped and murdered. In
response, President George Bush cut off military aid to Guatemala
and publicly criticized the Army. But, Reagan's two-track policy
was still in effect, so Bush continued to send CIA funds to the
military to allow them to continue their war, and strengthened
the ties between the CIA and the Guatemalan Army.
Under recent presidents, Guatemala's Civil Defense Patrols (PACs)
continued a campaign of domination and terror against civilians,
especially the indigenous population. Forced military conscription,
kidnappings, death threats, and assassinations continued with
The United Nations human rights mission
In 1994, a United Nations human rights
verification mission was established to monitor human rights in
Guatemala. It is called MINUGUA. MINUGUA highlighted numerous
cases of torture, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances by
security forces. It showed that human rights violations occur
daily. The victims are mostly students, teachers, trade unionists,
human rights workers, and peasant activists. MINUGUA reports documented
that death squads are run by the Army and National Police, who
also traffic in narcotics, and are involved in car theft and kidnappings.
MINUGUA also revealed that the government failed to investigate
or punish those responsible. In addition, relatives of human rights
violators and witnesses to abuses were targeted for violence and
intimidation. Prosecutors and judges who attempted to bring violators
to justice, suffered reprisals as well. There were also threats
and attacks on MINUGUA mission observers.
Jennifer Harbury vs. the US government
In 1995, US policy toward Guatemala was
driven by the unprecedented public attention to the plight of
US citizen Jennifer Harbury, the wife of disappeared guerrilla
leader Efrain Bamaca. In 1992, Bamaca was captured and murdered.
His wife, American attorney Jennifer Harbury, waged an impassioned
campaign to find her husband and bring his killers to justice.
Her hunger strikes first in Guatemala City and then in front of
the White House, touched a chord among Americans. Representative
Robert Toricelli of the House Intelligence Committee revealed
that both Michael DeVine and Efrain Bamaca had been executed on
the orders of Colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez, who had been on the
CIA payroll for years, and had been trained at the School of the
Harbury's struggle against the lies, intimidation, and cover-up
mounted by the Guatemalan authorities brought to US public attention
a reality all too familiar to Guatemalans. In addition, her pressure
for answers from the US government prompted the unraveling of
a series of revelations about the CIA's secret assistance to abusive
military institutions and officers in Guatemala. The scandal revealed
a secret policy that for many years had made all but irrelevant
Washington's public postures on human rights in Guatemala. In
the cascade of revelations, it became clear the CIA had secretly
provided millions of dollars in assistance to Guatemala's G-2
unit, even after the US government cut-off of overt military aid
and sales in 1990.
In March 1995, the Clinton Administration, as a result of Jennifer
Harbury's hunger strike in front of the White House, suspended
military training for Guatemalan Army officers. Shortly thereafter,
Clinton ordered most of the CIA's assistance to the Guatemalan
military suspended, except for anti-narcotics funding. The Intelligence
Oversight Board (it had never before been convened) was convened
at the end of 1995, but its report was a whitewash, concluding
that "No evidence has been found that any employee of the
CIA in any way directed, participated in or condoned the murder
of Michael DeVine." Perhaps, Alpirez was not considered an
"employee" even though he was on the CIA payroll. It
seems certain that there will be a similar finding in the Bamaca
execution as well.
Several millions of dollars in military aid cut off in 1990 by
the Bush administration, was channeled by Clinton into a peace
fund to support the work of the MINUGUA human rights verification
The "New World Order" and Guatemala
The war against Guatemalans still involves
guns, bombs and human rights abuses, but the war of the 1990s
is also an economic war against the poor. It is an international
system of social, economic, and political control which works
to separate the largest portion of the population of the world
-- those who are poor, people of color, and women, especially
within the developing world -- from the smallest portion of the
population who are wealthy.
During the 1980s debilitating debt, global inflation, and a national
economy sympathetic to foreign business exacerbated the problems
of Guatemala's poor. The poor became even poorer and those in
the small middle class were pushed closer to the edges of poverty.
Debt repayment problems led Guatemala to accept IMF and World
Bank structural adjustment policies (SAPs) that cut social services
and capped wages, and have resulted in increased unemployment,
lower wages, less access to health and education, and an alarming
growth of hunger and malnutrition.
Economic and social indicators are much worse for women than men
in Guatemala. Because of the war, thirty-eight percent of urban
women and fifty-six percent of rural women are widows. Of course,
women have the double burden of being primary caretakers for their
families and providing for their economic needs. Women are so
desperate for jobs to feed their families that they work in the
informal sector as domestic help, artisans, or farm workers. Women
are often more willing to take the jobs as factory workers in
the growing maquila industry (foreign-owned sweatshops).
In Guatemala, in the 90s, the Cold War has been replaced by the
"war against drugs" and NAFTA. The war on drugs has
given the enemies of democracy in Guatemala an excuse to bomb
the indigenous population in the countryside. The real narcotraffickers
are not in the countryside; they are in the cities where the seats
of power are. And NAFTA, is attempting to ensure that the landed
elite and the agri-corporations will control the country for some
time to come.
But, there are signs of hope. First, for the first time since
the ClA-sponsored coup in 1954, progressive candidates formed
a political party and ran candidates for the November 1995 election.
Second, although atrocities still occur, the government's response
offers some hope. Public outrage over the killing of returning
refugees from Mexico in 1995, and the presence of MINUGUA, resulted
in a public announcement of responsibility by the President of
Guatemala and the forced resignation of the Minister of Defense.
Third, the revelation by Jennifer Harbury last spring of the ClA's
complicity in the deaths of her husband and the US citizen Michael
DeVine has led to a campaign to declassify documents held by US
security and intelligence agencies. Also, international media
attention has created more political space for Guatemalans to
pressure their government for reopening investigations into human
rights abuses in hundreds of cases that have been dismissed or
Guatemala today stands on the brink of a long-awaited peace agreement
-- the government and representatives of all sectors of society
have been negotiating conditions for peace. The peace process
represents much more than a cease fire. After more than thirty-five
years of armed conflict and staggering injustice, Guatemalans
want a transformed society -- democratic leadership, rights for
indigenous people and displaced communities, demilitarization,
constitutional reforms, an end to impunity, a Truth Commission
to examine human rights abuses, political participation, and attention
to socio-economic issues such as land reform. Americans can help
this process by demanding that the US government stop the death
squads, support political and economic reform, and end the decades-old
war against the Guatemalan people.
Central America watch